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Published: April 14, 2016

Security and Humanitarian work in Pakistan: Was 2015 a Turning Point?

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In the past decade, many areas of Pakistan have endured a high level of insecurity. There are no set patterns to the violence, which has varied from attacks on law enforcement agencies and schools to sectarian violence and the targeting of medical professionals engaged in polio vaccination programmes. Regardless of the types and motives of these attacks, the civilian population have paid a high price. Agence France Presse state that by 2014, nearly 7,000 people had been killed in militant attacks in Pakistan since the emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) in 2007.

Improved Security

Looking at the numbers, 2015 might represent a turning point for the country’s security situation. It was certainly a landmark year; according to the Pakistan Security Report 2015, the number of attacks fell by 48% when compared with 2014. This represents the highest reduction in attacks between any two years since 2007. Analysts investigating the reasons behind the decrease have attributed it to a series of measures taken by the government following the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar (December 2014), which left more than 100 children dead. It is thought that this attack contributed to a major change in public opinion, further reducing support for militants operating in Pakistan. Military operations against militant groups and the Rangers’ intervention in Karachi have also been cited as key events in improving the country’s security.

Impact on NGOs

In the past years, the high level of insecurity has hindered NGOs’ capacity to operate; Humanitarian Outcomes listed Pakistan in the top 5 most dangerous places for aid workers to work from 2008 to 2014, and this period has seen very violent attacks on NGOs.  Kidnapping has also been a major threat, with 4 foreign aid workers being kidnapped in 2012 alone, and 40 national staff kidnapped between 2009 and 2014. ‘Pakistan is a big country and there is a lot of diversity’ says Taimur Ahmed, who has worked for a number of NGOs in different areas of the country. ‘Some organisations are present only in Lahore, others only in Karachi. Both are urban settings but with very different security contexts’.  NGOs are not evenly present all over the country, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have more NGOs than any other area. These areas have been among the most violent; in 2014 half of the attacks in Pakistan took place in KP and FATA.

In 2015, KP and FATA reported 506 incidents, compared with more than 900 in 2014, and NGOs operating in these areas reported only one targeted security incident in 2015 compared to ten in 2014 (Analytical Report: 2015 Review of Security). Nationwide in 2015, the number of NGO targeted security incidents was cut in half when compared to 2013 and 2014, reflecting the country’s security situation.  Clearly, the reduction in the number of attacks is a positive development for aid worker security.

Severity of Incidents

Incidents faced by NGOs in Pakistan are diverse in nature; as well as the prevalence of kidnapping and armed attack, petty crimes such as theft from offices or staff, or temporary arrests by authorities are all too common. These last examples constituted the majority of incidents faced by NGOs in 2015, showing a reduction in number and severity of incidents in comparison to previous years. These incidents were often related to the organisation’s activities or modus operandi, originating from issues such as local community dissatisfaction with programmes or disputes with landlords, rather than being generated through ideological or concerted militant action against perceived Western values.

Can NGOs revisit their security ratings for the country?

In interviews with three INGO country directors, the recurrent answer is one of caution. Militants retain the capacity to strike almost anywhere in the country, although their current intent is unclear. There is also the issue of organisational risk appetite, given that ‘improvement is harder to measure than deterioration’, and it is easier to climb up rather than climb down rigid security level systems, as Kelsey Hoppe recently explored in an article for the Humanitarian Practice Network. Moreover, one year is not enough to conclude that the country context has changed. NGOs could consider 2015 as an important landmark and monitor security closely in 2016 to capture changes and, if needed, internalise them by adjusting some of their security rules.

Ultimately, the improved security situation offers an opportunity for NGOs in Pakistan. NGOs can potentially reach out to areas that have been deemed inaccessible for security reasons.  The scope and frequency of field movements could also increase, improving monitoring and evaluation of projects and resulting in a more effective humanitarian response.

Sources and Background readings

Aid Worker Security Reports, Humanitarian Outcomes, 2001 to 2015, https://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/publications

Analytical Report: 2015 Annual Review of Security, Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, 7 January 2016

The Aid Worker Security Database, https://aidworkersecurity.org/incidents

Climbing back down: the challenge of reducing security levels, Humanitarian Practice Network, Hoppe, K, 23 November 2015, http://odihpn.org/blog/climbing-back-down-the-challenge-of-reducing-security-levels/

Inside the Peshawar school attacked by the Taliban, BBC News, 17 December 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-30525823

Military intervention has reduced terrorism risks in Karachi but allowed Pakistan’s military to consolidate influence over policy direction, IHS Jane’s 360, 08 September 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/54115/military-intervention-has-reduced-terrorism-risks-in-karachi-but-allowed-pakistan-s-military-to-consolidate-influence-over-policy-direction

Pakistan Security Report 2015, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, 3 January 2016, http://pakpips.com/securityreport.php

Pakistan Suicide Bomber Targets Police in Peshawar, 7 Killed and 28 Wounded, HNGN, 15 March 2014, http://www.hngn.com/articles/26533/20140314/pakistan-suicide-bomber-targets-police-peshawar-7-killed-28-wounded.htm

Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls, International Crisis Group, 22 July 2015, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/south-asia/pakistan/271-revisiting-counter-terrorism-strategies-in-pakistan-opportunities-and-pitfalls.aspx

Six killed in attack on World Vision office in Pakistan, BBC News, 10 March 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8559078.stm

UK aid body attacked in Pakistan, BBC News, 25 February 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7264055.stm



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